This is the challenge that UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) posed to us approximately 30 months ago. The ability to read and write your own language is a basic human right – however, illiteracy remains the number one educational challenge facing the world at present. One in every four adults on the planet is functionally illiterate (of whom two thirds are women) and an estimated 75 million girls are absent from the classroom. And the challenge for those who speak a minority language – for whom there is a significant shortage of textbooks – is even more pressing.
Working in partnership with The Reading and Writing Foundation led by Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands (UNESCO Global Envoy on Literacy), the partnership brokering agency Collaborative Impact and a fantastic developer partner called Terawe – we began to develop a set of Windows Azure services which allows anyone, anywhere to write and publish a literacy text in any language. We named the service Chekhov after the famous Russian writer, who provided for his family during long years of hardship by publishing short stories in magazines and journals.
To support learners in both formal and informal environments, every Chekhov book is made available as a free, print-on-demand PowerPoint file – and is also published as both a Windows 8 App and a Windows Phone App. These Apps include warm, human narration, allowing children who living in illiterate homes to learn to read on a low-cost mobile device, and facilitating that most basic of learning experiences – a child sitting on a parent's lap to read a book together.
By downloading Chekhov Story Author App for Windows 8.1 to a tablet or slate, students can write and record a book in a matter of minutes – and then share their published App with the world, via the Windows Store! Chekhov eBooks and Apps have already been published in 13 different languages, with new languages being added every month – from major languages such as English, Hindi and Urdu, to minority languages including Sesotho, Malayalam, Gaeilge and the First Nation languages of the indigenous peoples of Washington State. We will shortly be launching new pilots in 13 countries and will embark upon a three year partnership with UNESCO to target the challenge of illiteracy in four 'Tier 1' literacy nations: Ethiopia, Mexico, Egypt – and Bangladesh.
It has been a long and interesting journey and a humbling one, for all of us. We are guided in this work by Satya Nadella's defining statement: "At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more."
The relationships we have built with organizations such as UNESCO – and with our ISV partner Terawe, whose commitment has extended to their CEO, Anil Balakrishnan travelling to Kenya to personally train a group of teachers – have helped to underline our position as a genuine Partner in Learning. In the process, helping to stem the sad decline of minority languages and to support a new generation of learners to read and write in the languages of their cultures.
To learn more about International Mother Language Day, and what Microsoft is doing to support technology on this front, please visit the Official Microsoft Blog.